Going With The Flow (on or off the bike)


Are you happy? Most of us say we are. Good for us, but why then is there the enormous and growing happiness industry aimed at making us even more delirious. Its bounty includes books, classes, seminars, institutes, mental and physical exercises, diets, medications, and supplements. If we’re so happy, why do we need all this stuff?

Modern psychology is now spending a little less time with how and why humans are weird, and a little more time with what might make us content. I know this because I had the privilege to attend five of six lectures my friend William Edelglass presented at the Osher Institute’s adult education program here in the Brattleboro area.

So how would you know if you were happy? I’m serious. Is it just the absence of sadness, pain, or sorrow? Could you get more detailed? On, say, a scale of one to ten Š this actually happens Š could you say how happy you are? If you were a six yesterday, are you a seven this morning? A three? Can you really quantify something as subjective as happiness? Do we need to do so to evaluate things "scientifically?"

One simply way of deciding something about this is to ask yourself if you would like to continue doing what you’re doing right now. Let’s start with water boarding. More of that? No? OK, you were not happy. Filling out insurance forms? Right, not happy there either. Reading? "Yes, I want to continue reading this book." If you’re near the end, maybe you can’t even put it down. Pretty happy, then. But what about making dinner? "I love to cook." Fine -- happy -- can’t get enough of it, but what about the dishes?

Positive psychology is what they call the subfield where these new "happiness" wonks live. One of them, Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t even try; we’ll call him Dr. C.; you can check out his Ted talk), a child survivor of the Holocaust, came up with an interesting way to evaluate what he thinks is an important insight into happiness. He reached his conclusions by studying a wide array of professional types, from musicians and CEOs to rock climbers. Motorcyclists didn’t make the cut, but we fit in just fine.

Here’s how the thinking goes. Suppose you do something that ranges in challenge from easy to difficult, and that you can get really good at it with some combination of practice and innate skill. Woodworking, writing novels, archery, rocket design, public speaking, neurosurgery, horseback riding, and, yes, motorcycling could all be examples. Say you were a really good surgeon, but got stuck with just mundane stuff like wart removal -- day after day. You become bored out of your mind; definitely not happy. In fact, you’re apathetic. Now let’s say you were still pretty green, but were given a really hard task, maybe a cardiac bypass. You’re in way over your head, anxious, and not happy either. Finally, imagine that you’re really skilled and are confronting a complicated task. You’re Chief of Neurosurgery at Hotshot Medical school and you’re removing a benign growth on the surface of someone’s brain. You are totally focused, lose track of time, don’t notice that you’re hungry, and become completely engrossed in what you’re doing. This is what Dr. C calls Flow. For him, Flow is a form of deep happiness. You’re not just happy, you’re focused, mindful, totally immersed. According to Dr. C., the neurophysiological explanation for Flow is that our brains can only process a modest amount of information at one time. Try to do more and it doesn’t work -- two conversations at once, for example. So if you’re into Flow, hunger and other signals simply can’t force their way into your consciousness. They just get a busy signal.

In my own short existence as a motorcyclist, I have experienced two of Dr. C.’s extremes. My first mototrip in Europe happened with just a couple of thousand miles under my belt. Because of much higher training standards over there, European riders make many American riders look like they need training wheels. What was I thinking? I was terrified trying to keep up, but I did get better. A year later, in Norway, I could keep up, but just barely. Last summer, in Croatia, with tiny roads and nothing but mountains, the tight turns kept coming and coming, and guess what? I was pretty light on my feet. Lunch, what lunch? I might well have been experiencing Dr. C’s Flow.

The motorcycle wags talk constantly about the grin a particular bike will put on your face. I admit that there are times when I smile inside the helmet when things are going just right. It is then that I truly am the "top half of the motorcycle." But grinning and motorcycling may have more to do with our collective I.Q.s than with Flow. That said, both on and off the motorcycle, there are more than a few times when I find myself transfixed by what I’m doing, occasionally for hours at a time, and I now believe I have a better understanding of that. At the very least, I am living completely and utterly in the moment; I might even be flirting with happiness.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.


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